Reconstruction Vol. 12, No. 1

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On the (Im)possibility of Canadian Celebrity / Michele Byers

Abstract: This essay will examine the paradox of the celebrity Canadian as a marker of regional, national, and transnational modes of celebrity production and circulation, focusing particularly on questions of passing and/or mimicry. First, I will consider how Canadians have engaged in border crossings and the different strategies of assimilation/camouflage and differentiation they have used to locate Canadianness as part of their star identities (or not). In this I also consider what kinds of Canadian identities work (and how they work) in transnational star spaces; that is, which Canadian celebrity bodies have been able to engage in this kind of border crossing. Second, I will examine the paradoxical nature of the more rare creature: the Canadian celebrity at home. I consider why it is that these identities may be stopped at the border, and how they are recuperated to celebrity status within the nation. In both cases, I am interested in unpacking the Canadian celebrity as an uncanny marker of desire as they circulate within local, national, and transnational space.


<1> If a celebrity says they are Canadian, or talks about Canada and their feelings of Canadianness does anyone care, other than Canadians? What does it mean for people, other than Canadians, that a celebrity is Canadian? What is evoked by that knowledge? How does Canada as origin, and Canadianness as originary identity, labour in the global celebrity imaginary if it does at all? Does it labour differently for different Canadians? If the Canadian celebrity is still often conceptualized through a discourse of meritocratic citizenship, then we must ask who, in fact, is understood to be a citizen? And, if you cannot be a citizen, can you be a celebrity? These are some of the question that have framed the discussion that follows. Here is one more.

<2> Is it possible to be both Canadian and a celebrity? The most obvious response is: of course. There are many famous Canadians and, in fact, Canadians are thought to be the largest “immigrant” group in Hollywood, the centre of transglobal star-making. Canada has produced a lot of celebrities for a such a small country (population wise): Russell Peters, Eugene Levy, Keanu Reeves, Kim Cattrall, Pam Anderson, Seth Rogen, Avril Lavigne, Céline Dion, Alanis Morisette, Mike Myers, Mia Kirschner, Tom Green, Matthew Perry, Sandra Oh, and Shania Twain, to name just a random few. And yet, it is often argued that, Québec aside, we do not have celebrities at home. It is this ambiguous space—Canada as a space that both produces and yet does not produce stars, as a space from which stars emanate and yet a space from which emanation is impossible—that I interrogate here. A list of Canadian celebrities would include singers, actors, comics, writers, politicians, and athletes. However, the primary focus of this essay is on the celebrity persona most closely associated with the film, and more lately TV, star. While talent is part of the traditional discourse through which actors are discussed—even in film and TV—the meritocratic or skill based discourses associated with celebrity are less present here. As such, they make for a particularly rich ground upon which to base an inquiry into the nature of Canadian celebrity.

<3> Canadianness and the celebrity or stardom that attaches/detaches itself to/from such an identity is a particular articulation of King’s“ poetics of marketability” (7). King argues that the celebrity qua celebrity “ appear[s] as self-sufficient brand” constituting “ knowledge of the persona as a market-tested exchange value” (15, emphasis in the original). It is not clear here in what ways nationality figures (or does not figure) into this branding; how, when it attaches itself to the brand, nationality labours in the construction of celebrity. However, when King notes that “ stardom epitomizes the notion that freedom is possible through the sale of labour power” (16) one which holds out the“ anything is possible” potential of the individual—any individual—to achieve celebrity no matter who they are… or where they come from (17), this is suggestive.

<4> One of the things suggested by King’s assessment of the exchange value of the celebrity is that in order for the persona to emerge as a celebrity brand, nationality needs to be, if not illegible, than flexible, surfacing and submerging, being unfolded and refolded at various moments and in various places. It is productive here to introduce the work of cultural theorist Laura Marks, who writes that “many of the images that appear to our senses are no more than the effects of the information that generated them” ; cinema thus acts “like an interface of information” (86). Drawing on the work of Gilles Deleuze, Marks considers ways that cinematic images fold and unfold information, “ while information unfolds from the world, the image unfolds from information” (87). But what sort of information? Marks provides a variety of examples: cinematic convention, narrative convention, genre, and the national; all of these, she writes, “ correspond to manners of unfolding…. filters that privilege certain images to unfold” (87). The image of the fold provides a useful way of reading Marks and King through one another.

<5> In this essay, I have tended to use the terms star and celebrity somewhat interchangeably, but their distinction bears some clarification. Following King, we can consider the star to be a more meritocratic bearer of fame, whereas the celebrity is famous simply for being; that is, the exchange value of the star lies in their ability to remain known while moving differently through different spheres, while the celebrity’s exchange value lies in their (largely) consistent identity no matter where they are or what they are doing. Both the star and celebrity are “ extracinematic” (8), but whereas the star persona is read by King as being “interfilmic” —which I understand to mean that the star’s identity moves in and out of, and across the sphere of filmic (or of one primary sphere of) representation—the celebrity is “ semantically extracinematic and transmedial even if appearing in a specific film” (8). King remarks that even concepts like super and mega stardom have a residual feel, because they remain linked to (largely nostalgic) “claims [of] a relevant area of performance as its skill base” (9). Rather, what we have today are “ moment[s] of ‘pure’ celebrity, a state of being untainted by the complications of a specific set of craft practices” (9) or, we might argue, social locations. Marks writes that understanding occurs through an ongoing “ struggle [is] over what gets to remain enfolded, what is unfolded” (92). If a star identity often remains at least partly tied to a place of origin, in order to become a transnational commodity with broad brand recognition, the national origins of the celebrity must remain or become enfolded.

<6> Canadian stars tend to be inherently dis/located, as their very emergence requires them to be in circulation beyond our national border. Even fan mobbed Canadians Justin Bieber and Drake only really became celebrities through their transnational, rather than national, successes. While celebrities may enjoy the mobile possibilities offered by changing technologies, it still seems that for Canadian stars the best road to follow is a literal one: south. That is, technological innovation merely seems to reiterate traditional pathways of celebrity available to Canadians since the earliest days when Canadians went to New York and Hollywood (as opposed to Toronto or Montreal) to seek their fortunes. And there were many of them in the early days of Hollywood, those days associated with the emergence of star systems as contemporarily conceived (Dyer). To name just a few whose names (but not origins) may be familiar to the reader: Fay Wray, Jack Warner, Nell Shipman, Louis B. Mayer, Florence Lawrence, and Glenn Ford. Mary Pickford, “America’s Sweetheart” and one of the co-founders of United Artists and of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, was a Canadian, born Gladys Marie Smith in Toronto in 1892.

<7> For a long time a dominant discourse in Canadian media studies and media policy argued that Canada (and Canadians) were at risk from the American behemoth to the south. While somewhat discredited today, this position was underpinned by a belief in the inherent differences that existed between Canadian and American culture(s). These differences necessitated highly protectionist interventions into media culture, enacted to ensure that Canada (and Canadian identity) was not diluted/infected through mediated practices of American Imperialism (Edwardson). And yet, there has been little examination of the way that Canadians have long “infiltrated” Hollywood and how, if we are to believe that Canadian culture and identity is strongly differentiated from that of the U.S., this has impacted the development of American culture (i.e. Attalah). While not the focus of this article, it is certainly a route worth traveling in the future.

<8> In 2008, at a conference at McGill University called Are We American?, Andy Nulman—creator of the hugely successful Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal—gave a rambling monologue on the great irritation he felt for Canada’s lack of acknowledgement and promotion of celebrities, both by its institutions and its citizens. He expressed particular frustration about the treatment of Howie Mandel in Canadian television circles. While the audience laughed, Nulman interestingly pointed to a resistance in Canada to the idea of celebrity, at least outside of celebrity that is seen as genuine or based on some kind of evidence that can be validated (heroism, talent, skill). A special event held later that day was moderated by Trina McQueen, the former head of CTV. One of the things the panel addressed was whether Canada was a kind of farm league for Hollywood, a place where one could get training, but not get ahead. In 2003, McQueen prepared a report for the CRTC and Telefilm Canada entitled Dramatic Choices: A Report on Canadian English Language Drama. One of her recommendations for the development of strong nationally produced dramas was “star building,” but she also noted the problems with this. The most obvious is money. If King suggests that pure celebrity is about bankability, than money/capital is (one of) the thing(s) that propels the celebrity system: the desire to have that sort of bankable persona. McQueen tells the story of “ an actress contracted for a small recurring role in a top Canadian series for $60,000 a season. She was offered exactly the same work in an American series for $60,000 per episode. She begged to be released. She is in Los Angeles now, with hundreds of other Canadians with similar stories.

<9> In what follows, I examine the paradox of the celebrity Canadian (and Canadian celebrity) as a marker of national, and transnational modes of celebrity production and circulation. First, I consider how Canadians have engaged in border crossings to become transnational celebrities in the Hollywood vein. I also consider what kinds of Canadian identities work (and how they work) in transnational star spaces; that is, which Canadian celebrity bodies have been able to engage in this kind of border crossing. Second, I examine, albeit more briefly, the Canadian celebrity at home. I consider why it is that these identities may be stopped at the border, and how they are recuperated to celebrity status within the nation. In both cases, I am interested in unpacking the Canadian celebrity as an uncanny marker of desire as they circulate within national and transnational space. I conclude by returning to the question of the possibility of Canadian celebrity and point to possible routes for future research.

Understanding Celebrity

<10> In preparing to write this essay, I (re)visited some of the foundational literature on stardom and celebrity, much of which is also revisited in the newer literatures on this subject. Given that it is so well explored elsewhere, I am not going do so again in any depth but will give a brief overview of some of the key concepts and insights I have found useful in my own reading. Many discussions of celebrity begin with Boorstin’s description of celebrity as “a person well-known for their well-knownness,” which can be contrasted to a “ genuine” doer of great deeds or a hero (in King 7). This is often contrasted with Dyer’s work which invokes the active role of audience in the creation of meaning from celebrity (in Ferris 377), as well as the intertextual complexity of celebrity that roots celebrity not in the actor but in the intertextual matrices of their production (Meyers 892). Meyers describes this as the complexity and ambiguity of stardom (893), one that creates tension between the “real” and the star image which is refracted into a multitude of possible meanings rather than one authentic meaning of “ the star” (894-895). This work tends to split along a number of lines. One exists between, on the one hand, the idea that celebrity is “false value” and, on the other, that it is “ a site of tension and ambiguity in which an active audience has the space to make meaning of their world by accepting or rejecting the social values embodied by a celebrity image” (Meyers 891). Of course, these complexities are not free from the discursive logics through which we as audiences enter into relationship with celebrity. This is a useful way of thinking about how Canadianness might enter into readings of celebrities, offering one possible way of engaging the meaning of the star persona, especially for Canadian viewers.

<11> Other work has focused on the economics of celebrity (King, Schulman) or what Orth calls the “celebrity-industrial complex” (in Kuzman et al. 353); celebrity and the law (Coombe, Hamilton, Kurzman et al.); celebrity as religion (Rojek); and the sociology of celebrity, as developed via the earlier writings of Weber, C. Wright Mills, and later, Bourdieu (i.e. Alexander, Ferris, Kurzman et al.). In a foundational text on stardom, Richard Dyer argues that one of the central ambiguities of the star persona is the star’s continual shifting between a state of specialness and one of ordinariness (42–43), are they “ like me” or are they, inherently, something better/unlike me? As is elaborated in this article, Canadianness is already keyed to a sense of ordinariness, especially in comparison to American culture. The every(wo)man quality of many Canadian celebrities becomes a central component to their transnational mobility.

<12> Some new directions in the study of celebrity culture seem particularly interesting and fruitful. The first addresses the rise of the current wave of Reality-TV and the development of the “celetoid” —the person who is a quasi celebrity, usually only for a very brief period, because of their presence (playing themselves) on RTV series. Sue Collins draws on Mark Andrejevic’s work on the potential of RTV to disrupt/undermine celebrity culture, arguing that these celebrity/toids stratify rather than disrupt the existing system, creating a “new category of celebrity” that she calls dispensable (89). Collins’ work, her investigation of celebrity studies in an attempt to create space for a fertile study of the rise of the RTV “star,” creates equally fertile ground for the investigation of Canadian and other nationally specific sites of celebrity. She considers McDonald’s notion of celebrity as “a kind of intertextually fluid ‘capital’”that gets “deployed with the intention of gaining advantage in the entertainment market and making profits” (92). We could ask here, is there a national aspect to this intertextual fluidity? I would hypothesize that nation/nationality acts to rigidify celebrity in some cases, and, in so doing, its deployment causes the potential celebrity to lose advantage. Or, put another way, national celebrities may be dispensible in the global Hollywood system, in much the same way that RTV stars are.

<13> Drawing on the work of a variety of scholars, Collins points to circulation/distribution as the key node for the production of celebrity (93) and later notes that a  “celebrity’s success is located in the creation of audiences” (94). There are incredible problems associated with distribution of Canadian film (and television, although the problems associated with each medium is different)—we can produce films (sometimes even very good ones) but getting them into cinemas, even Canadian cinemas, is extremely difficult. Thus in Canada we can produce lots of possible stars, but we need the American system of circulation/distribution—and valuation—to create celebrities. The question of nation and intertextual value/circulation might be understood in relation to a star’s “symbolic value” (95). Some non-American celebrities develop symbolic capital from their Otherness, using things like accents as part of the particularity of their celebrity personas. But there are many others whose fame is unhinged from nation and thus their generic “celebrity” is assumed to be American. This doesn’t mean that their national origins are hidden, but they are not foundational to their celebrity. It is not clear that there is much if any symbolic value in being Canadian in the transitional field of global celebrity.

<14> The other aspect of celebrity that appears to be emerging is that of the local celebrity. Ferris discusses the local celebrity as a type of subcultural celebrity (393)— a celebrity famous within “ever decreasing circles of affective connectivity” (Redmond in Ferris, 393)—through the interrogation of recognizability, which is a key aspect of the way viewers take up celebrities (393). The question of the local is itself bifurcated. On one side is the creation of celebrity. McElroy and Williams propose the term “localebrity” to describe people who are famous within a very small physical territory (197). In the relatively small city in which I currently live, they use the term “Halifamous,” which basically means that you are famous in Halifax [1]. On the other side is the reading or decoding of celebrity. I suspect that the Canadianness—whether known or not—of famous Canadians is irrelevant to many (perhaps most) people outside of Canada. But I know; the attribution of Canadianness appears to be important to fan identification. This works in both straightforward and more complicated ways (or along different routes). For example, after the film Juno was released Ellen Page was quite celebrated, globally, for her role. In Canada, there was particular excitement about the fact that she was a Canadian star (who marked her Canadianness). In Halifax, there was an additional level of local attachment as Page was continually noted to be not only (or even primarily) Canadian, but Atlantic Canadian, Nova Scotian, and even Haligonian. A different example might be offered by a celebrity whose point of “origin” is less clear; for example, Anna Paquin, who, when she won an Oscar at eleven, was claimed as a Canadian actress (as she was born in Canada) by many Canadians, but was also claimed as a New Zealander (where she was raised from the age of four).

<15> The question of citizenship is also productively raised here. Just as some stars may be claimed as citizens of various nations by their fans (and presses), so too, for some performers, citizenship is complicated or even out of reach. In the context of Canada, citizenship is always fractured along several axes. While I do not delve into them very deeply here, I want to mark them as important trajectories that warrant further study at a later date. By and large, the celebrity cultures, transnational though they may be, that I address here, are Anglo cultures (in the sense of being both white and English-speaking). Thus Québecois culture, with its specific identity, history, and celebrity culture, needs to be theorized within the context of Canadian celebrity and citizenship. As I discuss briefly in a later section of this paper, the bigger the celebrity, the more problematic this tension between national citizenship and Québecois identity becomes. Thus, within transnational cultures whether Céline Dion is a Québecoise or a Canadian may be of little import: she is simply Céline (or maybe Celine). But within the context of fan ownership and repudiation in Canada, her status as a national citizen (in fact, her potential to be read as a traitor/hero to the nation, depending on which “nation” is at issue) is constantly part of the discourse through which her celebrity is constructed.

<16> Like Québecois celebs, First Nation stars are reminders of unpleasant fractures within the Canadian brand. John McCollough makes a crucial intervention into the way texts (he uses television texts, but we could quite easily include celebrities as text here) can be understood as having an exchange value rooted in their ability to de-specify their rootedness in particular spaces with particular histories. In his example, Canadian prairie sitcom Corner Gas succeeds transnationally, while urban Aboriginal drama Moccassin Flats does not, at least in part because the latter show insistently and continually returns to a specific space which implicates the region, the nation, and the world in the histories and legacies of colonial oppression, white supremacy and genocide. Canadian First Nations stars are unfixed with regard to citizenship, and in the transnational celebrity market their exchange value often lies in being read as “Indian” in an unspecified way (that is, dislocated from specific lands, histories, claims, and so on). In this way, Canadian First Nations stars are both like and unlike the racialized stars discussed later in this essay. Where they achieve transnational visibility and success, it is usually through a process of deracination.

<17> The question of space and recognition is being productively explored today by a variety of scholars from “ small nations,”whose work includes examinations of what it means to see local spaces in popular film and television (Mills). Canadian spaces, like Canadians, are often visible on global screens, but they are not necessarily recognized as such by most viewers. Canadians are always on the lookout for Canadians, but most other viewers probably don’t know the difference between a Canadian and an American, just as most North Americans cannot really tell the difference between British accents, between English and Welsh accents… or Scottish or Irish. The local thus not only frames the production of celebrity, but also the reading of celebrity. That is, celebrities may be global, intertextual entities, but readers are always local (even if multiply so).

<18> Turner, Bonner and Marshall’s discussion of Australian celebrity offers an interesting investigation into the role of nation in the production of celebrity, from a nation that has many similarities with Canada. They describe the “continual and complex process which ‘built up the star system here’” (49) that is connected to a very calculated managing of the creation of Australian celebrity. This is precisely the sort of thing that Trina McQueen is advocating we need, but sadly lack, in Canada. Sheryl Hamilton’s work on Canadian law and celebrity culture offers an overview of the growing “structures of the Canadian celebrity system” (205), which now needs further elaboration beyond her particular point of inquiry.

<19> If we take the little threads of the work that offer, thus far, a meager tapestry through which to weave a theory of Canadian celebrity, what do we have? If the idea of Canadian celebrity appears anathema, so too does a literature of Canadian celebrity, or a theory of celebrity that works within a Canadian idiom. There are exceptions, of course. Mavor Moore, a Canadian playwright and screenwriter describes, in his autobiography, why he gave up over 1500 dollars a week in New York, to come back and start CBC television for less than two hundred dollars a week. Moore makes this marvelous observation: his American agent kept getting him more money based on the idea that he was desirable elsewhere. It wasn’t his talent that they were willing to pay more for, rather, it was the idea of his market value based on the interest he had garnered elsewhere. Here is King’s market poetics at work. Moore points out that his desirability (and quickly inflating salary) to the U.S. network did not move his friend in Canada (who was offering him the job at the CBC) at all. They offered him 165 dollars a week and no matter how high the U.S. network went, that stayed firm because, Moore insists (and here he seems to imply, if modestly, that his colleague is correct), that 165 is what he was worth.  This sense of knowing your place/worth is part of Canadian celebrity. As he himself says it best: “ The moment CBS accepts this preposterous figure… the farce becomes Faust. On one side stands Mephisto offering me the earth to climb aboard his flashy bandwagon, while on the other the Angels promise self-sacrifice and the chance to design a better model” (188).

<20> Of course both Moore’s autobiography and the examples provided by McQueen and Nulman are anecdotal, as is most of the other “ lit” I found on Canadian celebrity in researching this essay (i.e. Chidley, Haggert, Wilcox, Wilson-Smith). Here the question of cultural values and myths comes strongly into play and it is in evidence in the only piece of truly scholarly material I was able to find (York’s work on Canadian literary celebrity was interesting, but not really as relevant to this essay). But it is worth reiterating what legal scholar Sheryl Hamilton argued in 2009: “there has been no attempt by scholars to document, understand, or analyze the specificity of celebrity in Canada.” (201). I found Hamilton’s work by accident—a google search—because her chapter on celebrity is located in her book on the way personhood is produced within contemporary legal culture. However, it is without a doubt the best, and most thorough, work on Canadian celebrity culture, and it is an auspicious beginning. Her work’s focus is the way the law in Canada has been shaped by national understandings of celebrity culture, but the theoretical implications of the work are much broader than that.

Theorizing Canadian Celebrity Culture

<21> Hamilton argues that “ the Canadian ‘celebrity system’… [is] in a much more nascent state [than in the U.S.] and, second, enacted in a climate of fundamental unease” (187, also 200). That is, as I’ve already argued, in Canada, celebrity is related to knowing your place. Hamilton’s analysis makes two central, interrelated arguments: “there are three central discourses—merit, sovereignty, and personality—which operate in continual tension to produce two dominant myths that frame Canadian celebrity: the meritorious celebrity and the citizen celebrity” (200). The first myth is rooted in the idea that celebrity “is not founded in personality,” the second, that “celebrities are (and should be) nation-builders” (201). In this analysis, Hamilton notes that Canadians tend to claim only very particular celebrities, those whose work can be scripted into some notion of high culture value (202), usually in juxtaposition with something American. We need the U.S. to produce Canadian celebrities, but they are “ also the necessary ‘other’ against which the dominant face of Canadian celebrity is constituted” (202). It is worth noting that these two positions represent two different kinds of celebrities: the citizen celebrity needs the U.S., the meritorious celebrity finds its others in the U.S.

<22> Hamilton argues that “Canadian celebrity bears a complex double burden—it must both entertain (mass and elite) audiences and suture our always-at-risk national sovereignty” (203), but also recognizes that this is shifting as celebrity culture becomes increasingly global. At the same time, it is important to consider, within the context of global Hollywood, which celebrities have access to and mobility through the most dominant of “ trade routes.” That is, could we conceive of a template for who can “get into” the highest levels of celebrity (what is necessary to move into those spaces), in the way that, in Beyond the Color Line, Don Cheadle describes a Hollywood point system through which producers decide which actors, put together, will produce a marketable hit—with few exceptions, points are modified by things like gender and racialization. What is it about Canadians that enables certain Canadian stars to blend so effortlessly into the global celebrity landscape?

<23> Marks’ recent expansion of Bergson/Deleuze in her conceptualization of enfolding and unfolding is useful here. In this paradigm, everything that is and might be exists in a category she calls the infinite. Passing through a zone Marks calls information (the “rules” through which things from the infinite are organized so as to be made meaningful to us) certain images are unfolded. That is, they become knowable. At the same time, they are always at risk of remaining or become enfolded (back) into the infinite where they will no longer have any meaning/value. Canadianness is an aspect of celebrity that is often enfolded. Or, it is enfolded in particular spaces and for particular readers. In her reading of audiences’ interactions with Britney Spears’ multiple incarnations, Meyers argues that “ the audience actually can negotiate these images in ways meaningful to them” (904). So perhaps Canadianness is meaningful in readings of some celebrities to some readers (Canadians) and not others. In this way, Canadians are much like ethnic minorities (Yacowar). Canadian readers “look” for and “ mark” (one might also say “ out” ) Canadians in particular cultural texts, in much the same way that, for example, Jewish reader/viewers will look for clues about the Jewishness of particular actor/character/celebrities (i.e. Stratton).

<24> If we think about Canadian celebrity as traveling along particular routes, then we can also imagine that one of the things that is flowing along these routes is desire. Desire for celebrity in a variety of forms, ones that need to conform to the rather confusing configuration through which Canadian celebrity comes into being. Canadians, of course, desire to be celebrities. And Canadians desire Canadian celebrities. So Canadian celebrity is a form a desire that unfolds through a Canadian reading (and sometimes critique) of celebrity. Canadians, like many “ minority” viewers, appear to track Canadianness in the popular public sphere. It is important to recognize and know Canadians. But it is not clear that Canadians are legible, and that Canadian legibility is meaningful, to non-Canadians.

<25> I will next explore the two dominant ways in which celebrity is articulated through a Canadian idiom: first, the Canadian celebrity, or, the transnational, Hollywood celebrity whose origins happen to be found in Canadian space and, second, the Canadian celebrity, or, the person whose celebrity is located within the confines of the nation-state or, perhaps it is fairer to say, outside of the particular transnational routes of Hollywood celebrity.

1. A Canadian celebrity: A celebrity who just happens to be Canadian

<26> It is possible to think of Canadian celebrities as engaging in border crossings in their search for global fame. This requires strategies of assimilation/camouflage and differentiation through which Canadianness is located as part of stars’ identities (or not). Not all Canadian identities work in transnational star spaces; that is, not all Canadian bodies have been able to engage in this kind of border crossing. In assessing my own understanding of who successfully engages in this type of mobility or circulation, I saw a pattern emerging, one that I had remarked upon in another context. In writing about the series Canadian Idol, I noted that over several seasons I could see—as could others, including the judges—that as the focus of the show shifted from the many to the few, and the power shifted from the judges to the audience, almost all urban contestants who could lay no claim on “ whiteness” were eliminated. What was left was a vision of Canadianness as celebrity, which was, to a large degree, safe and sanitized of obvious markers of Otherness, and this was true even when the winners were not “ white” in a traditional sense. This, I would argue, is apparent in the celebrities Canada produces for transnational consumption as well, particularly those who, passing through the plush gates of Hollywood, make it into the realm of global/transnational celebrity status: Pam Anderson, Ryan Reynolds, Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, Seth Rogen, Ellen Page, Michael J. Fox, and, of earlier generations, Christopher Plummer, Donald Sutherland, Alan Thicke, or Leslie Nielson. And let us not forget Mary Pickford.

<27> In much of my work on media and Canadian identity, I have argued that mediated subjects in Canada must be produced as Canadian subjects who are knowable as Canadians no matter how they have been racialized and/or ethnicized. Via Eva Mackey, I have been cautious of the historical tendency to use imported theories and schemas to describe Canadian strategies of identity and citizenship. It is not that these are not useful, and even necessary as spaces from which to begin, but they omit the very specific nature of Canadian historical and sociocultural experiences that is in fact built on continuity and differentiation from the settler-histories of Europe (particularly the “ founding nations” of England and France) and the United States, as well as the ongoing internal tug-of-war between Anglo-Canada and Québec. As Mackey and others (i.e. Manning) have noted, one of the mythically defining features of “ Canadians” (what Mackey via Brodie calls “Canadian-Canadians,” those unhybridized, “ unmarked, non-ethnic, and usually white” nationals (20)) is their ordinariness. I would argue that while this “ ordinariness” exists in most multicultural societies in which there are those who claim that they are unified in their identities in opposition to those fractured and multiple newcomers, in Canada part of the myth of the ordinary is rooted in the idea of not drawing attention to oneself, of knowing one’s place (again). “We” —and here again I invoke the mythic we as produced through public discourse, rather than individual responses to popular culture and identity—may like the pomp and display of British royalty, but are less comfortable with such public displays for (most) Canadian “ royals.” We like our billionaires to be more like Galen Weston than Donald Trump. We prefer that “our” celebrities not behave like Britney or Charlie Sheen, we expect them to remain well behaved, polite (or at least contrite) “ celebrity citizens” (Hamilton 203). There is a “ success story that Americans take for granted but Canadians cherish—a humble guy doing something extraordinary” (Michaux in Hamilton 204). This ordinary/humbleness presumes a certain kind of Anglo-white middle-class identity or, at least, identification.

<28> Sheryl Hamilton notes that “[t]he Canadian celebrity as ideal citizen” may be affirmed through “demonstrations by the celebrity of her or his Canadian-ness” (204). Hamilton talks about a lot of things related to the socio-legal status of the Canadian celebrity forced to “ carry the burden of the maple leaf” (207). However, she does not delve into the question of how the Canadian celebrity as ideal citizen is constituted along axes of sociocultural identity (such as racialization). To return to my own observations of Canadian celebrity, one of the patterns I saw emerging was that the ideal Canadian celebrity citizen was, at least within a dominant reading, “white.” By this I mean, a person who is able to claim “whiteness” as a dominant cultural identity as it is delineated within North American media culture today, which includes not only Anglo-Celtic whiteness (and may exclude certain forms of Franco-whiteness), but also various forms of white ethnicity, such as Ashkenazi Jewishness, Italianness, and so on—so long as they conform to particular articulations of class and racialization (i.e. Brodkin, Guglielmo and Salerno, Ignatiev).

<29> This pattern seems to hold, to a large degree, across not only TV and film, but many other forms of cultural expression through which Canadian celebrity is articulated, with the possible exception of literature. But, like so much else in Canada, I could not find much to back up my conclusion. Until, that is, I remembered the following quote by George Elliot Clarke, in an essay entitled, aptly, “ White Like Canada” :

The general incoherence of color based identity in Canada permits Canadian whiteness to exist, then, as an ethereal force. Left pretty much to its own devices, the white majority in Canada exudes a kind of ideal whiteness, ready for export. All my life, I've considered Canada to be a kind of discount warehouse where American networks and film companies go to purchase images of immaculate, politic whiteness. You want cool? Check out Mike Myers or Dan Ackroyd. You need cerebral poise? Try Alex Trebek or Peter Jennings. You want family values? Here's Michael J. Fox. You want sex appeal? Take Pamela Sue Anderson or Shannon Tweed. You're in the market for a sellable lesbian? Choose k.d. lang. You're searching for clean-cut action heroes? Hire William Shatner or Keanu Reeves. Weary of Alice Walker? Read Alice Munro. Sick of Babyface winning all the Grammys? Give one to Céline Dion. Bruce Springsteen too aggressive for your sensibilities? Listen to Bryan Adams. Polite, pacific, respectable, Canadian whites are abundantly available for Americans who want to glorify whiteness without alienating African Americans (100).

I quote Clarke at length because, although we might bring some of his examples up to date (the article is, after all, fourteen years old), he is one of the few people who has theorized the intersection of Canadian celebrity and racialized identity. Clarke notes that the “ weird(er) reality” of Canadians’ racialized histories is rooted in the specificity of Canadian history, of a nation growing up between Britain and the U.S., between French and English, within self-congratulatory notions of socialistic multicultural tolerance. Clarke writes that “ there are plenty of white liberals in Canada, but little white liberal guilt: Canadians do not believe that they have committed any racial sins for which they should atone. If anything, they are self-righteous in maintaining their innocence” (101-02). This argument can be quite productively linked to Richard Dyer’s arguments about the conflicted ordinariness of stardom (of the star) raised earlier. The ordinariness of Canadian celebrities is to be found, at least in part, in a productive partnering (in terms of both visibility and invisibility) of nationality, citizenship and whiteness.

<30> I have to admit that as I was writing this paper, I was hearing a critique: come on, there are plenty of Canadians who become international celebrities who do not fit the profile you are describing. But are there? Not really. A search of various wiki lists revealed several actors from Degrassi and other Canadian teen shows who are not “ white.” There are slightly more well known Caribbean-Canadian actors like Tonya Lee Williams (Y&R) and Gloria Reuben (ER); Asian-Canadian actors Sandra Oh (Korean) and Tommy Chong (Chinese/Irish-Scottish); First Nations actors Adam Beach (Saulteaux) and Graham Green (Oneida) might also be included on this list.  There are more examples from other fields. In comedy, for example, Russell Peters is considered one of the funniest people in the world. In literature, Canada has Michael Ondaatje, Shani Mootoo, and many others. In music we have Drake (more on him in a minute). Of course, none of the actors mentioned here is really famous, in the way that some of the other names I already mentioned will be familiar to global audiences [2].

<31> Reading Clarke via McQueen, we could argue that Canada is a “training ground” for celebrities who perform a certain kind of “whiteness.” This whiteness is a kind of camouflage, a mimetic performance which allows certain Canadians the mobility—which gives them the currency—needed to cross into the space of transnational celebrity. This performance is an assimilatory one, that is, the person in question needs to be able to assimilate into American culture. This does not only mean performing “as if” they are American (and they may in fact openly admit their Canadianness). It means, if we follow Clarke, offering something to Americanness that is not already in some sense part of the American/global Hollywood lexicon and yet can be added to it without taking something away. The Canadians who seem to do this the best are those who are, largely, good (white) citizens.

<32> To delve a little deeper into this I want to give two counter examples. The first is Céline Dion who is not often regarded as good citizen (especially a good Canadian citizen). Americans may express animosity towards Céline but Canadians are (said to be) embarrassed by her. As Carl Wilson notes, after her 1997 hit “ My Heart Will Go On,” “ Céline-bashing became not just a Canadian hobby but a nearly universal pastime” (4). In Canada, this is based less on an affective reaction to her music than to Céline as person of Canadian provenance who somehow reflects on us as a group, badly. The sense of Canadianness as a minority status fuels this sense of cultural cringe (Yacowar, Straw). Céline belongs to Canada’s internal Other (Québec) and thus her citizenship and relation to the national brand are always in tension.

<33> In his excellent volume on Dion, Wilson notes two contrasting things about his own reading of the star: he thought of her as “just another Canadian goody-goody” and that “ [a]s far he [he] knew, [he’d] never even met anybody who liked Celine Dion” (11). This second point is interesting given that Dion’s first globally-successful album sold over 11 millions copies in the U.S. (and a million at home), the second album, Let’s Talk About Love sold over 31 million copies worldwide [3]. Wilson of course notes this, and his book is a personal excavation into matters of taste and subculture. While this is perhaps invisible to many people (especially outside of Canada), Céline comes from a very particular subcultural space (la culture Québecoise) (24-25), which, Wilson argues, makes her somewhat distasteful and discomforting for many middle-class Anglo-audiences (35), even while her music appears to create no such difficulties for listeners from China to Ghana to Afghanistan to Iraq (40-42). Wilson’s reading of Dion seems to reverse Clarke’s point about whiteness and Canadian celebrity, but holds true to it at the same time. Dion is not part of the mainstream white-Anglo middle-class “ school” of Canadianness through which dominant forms of Canadian celebrity emanate (138).

<34> My second example is also a musician: Drake. Drake fits really well within the paradigm that Clarke sets out. He was already a Canadian celebrity as Aubrey Graham, playing the character Jimmy Brooks on Degrassi: The Next Generation, the most recent incarnation of one of the longest running (and most transnationally popular) series in Canada. Graham’s father is African American and his mother is Jewish/white. He was raised in a very wealthy area of Toronto (Forest Hill). His character on Degrassi, while not represented as biracial, is represented as upper middle class and, generally, as a clean-cut, good boy. Playing on a field, as he does now, with African American hip hop artists, Drake, while not performing in the sense of pretense, remains true to the hallmarks of Canadian celebrity citizenship I’ve already described and as described by Clarke as: “polite, pacific, respectable.”While not “white” (and I must bracket here the complexity of how multi-raciality is read through multiple lenses of identity), Drake does have all the cultural capital necessary for the kind of export Clarke describes.

Canadian celebrity: Someone who is a celebrity in Canada

<35> The second thing I want to examine is the paradoxical nature of the more obscure creature: the Canadian celebrity at home. Why is it that these identities may be stopped at the border, and how may they be recuperated to celebrity status within the nation? Just as I have argued that Canadians can make it by assimilating into American celebrity culture in very particular ways—by being, to paraphrase Homi Bhabha, almost, but not quite, American—other Canadians become famous at home, but never seem able to quite make the jump across the border. Admittedly, some become famous in Europe, or Asia, but simply do not develop that association with global Hollywood that seems necessary to be a “real” celebrity today.

<36> This “class” of national celebrities is strongly associated with the myths of Canadian celebrity Hamilton describes: that they are meritorious and that they are nation builders (201). While it might be said that many Canadian celebrities also fit this dyadic description, an argument can always be offered that a) those who succeed do so by selling out (Canada) and thus never had the truly Canadian hallmark of moral superiority (202); b) those who fail to achieve success in the U.S. have failed because of their moral superiority; c) that those who fail to achieve success in the U.S. have failed because they chose to stay “home” and focus on building the nation(al media)—and thus did not really fail at all. But regardless of the argument, there are clearly those who, while meeting all the criteria for Canadian celebrity, fail to find routes to more mobile celebrity status. Tyler and Bennett’s work on “ celebrity chav” links certain processes related to celebrity to drag, that is to “ an unconvincing and inadvertently parodic attempt to pass” (381). Like Homi Bhabha’s wonderful description of colonial culture as producing subjects that are “almost the same, but not white,”global celebrity culture produces a bastion of people who are almost the same (as celebrities) but not quite. Canadian celebrities (those whose fame does not cross the American border) might be thought of as existing among this group.

<37> Trina McQueen notes that “Our [Canadian] drama has filled every role that can be asked of a nation's story telling…. It has, yes, it has produced stars: Sonja, Cynthia, Megan, Jackie, Gordon, Paul, Colm, Bruno, Al—we all know their last names. In a bittersweet achievement, it has introduced our talent to larger and richer countries; and we have lined up with the world to watch our own telling the stories of others.” However, if you are not Canadian do you know that these first names link to: Smits, Dale, Borroughs, Follows, Pinsent, Gross, Feore, Gerusi, and Waxman—I myself had to look some of these names up—in the way that we might Keanu, Eugene, Neve, Pamela, Kim, Michael, or even Corey? The actors McQueen chooses are those who fit quite neatly the profile of the meritorious Canadian celebrity citizen, in contrast, for the most part, to the list I’ve given, although it is true that the actors McQueen names who have become famous outside of the nation have done so by working outside of Canada: Al Waxman is likely more well-known for his turn as Lt. Bert Samuels on Cagney & Lacey (CBS 1981-1989) despite the wide syndication of King of Kensington (CBC 1975-1980), on which he starred. Paul Gross is most famous for his role on the co-pro Due South (CTV, CBS, BBC 1994–1999).

<38> Sometimes we are surprised and saddened by the failure of certain (deserving) celebrities to “make it” to global celebrity status by achieving recognition in the U.S. Megan Follows, a darling of the Canadian stage and screen (Anne in Anne of Green Gables (CBC 1985)) could not translate her Canadian celebrity into a career in the U.S. The comedy troupe Kids in the Hall (CBC 1988–94), with the exception of Dave Foley who went on to star on the American sitcom News Radio (NBC 1995-1999), never achieved any real fame in the U.S. [4]. Our disappointment happens because we buy into a discourse of merit. And I suspect that this is especially true in an era of hypermediated, transnational celebrity. Hamilton argues that the myth that the Canadian celebrity “persona authenticates the person as both a good creator and good Canadian” is disrupted “ in [the] current culture of celebrity that does not stop at national borders… [wherein] these myths can contain neither the complex workings of the celebrity apparatus nor the unruliness of the [celebrity] persona” (205). And yet, the story of border porosity is not so simple and must itself be carefully thought through.

<39> Just as Hamilton unpacks the border that marks legal differences between the rights and conceptualizations of celebrity in Canada and the U.S., as we theorize Canadian and other national/local sites of celebrity production (different spaces that give birth to celebrities) we have to consider the role of the border in the creation or refusal of celebrity. We like the idea that in our transnational, wireless world of information flow, everything is available and moves easily across borders and through space. But this just isn’t true. To start with a simple example, streaming video made available by networks or sites like stops consumers from outside of particular national borders from accessing material on their sites. As a Canadian, I can’t get hulu or Showtime, and I cannot buy certain videos from the UK iTunes store, for example. Even more accessible sites are often ephemeral, and this is directly related to the popularity of particular material. Thus lots of Canadian TV and film doesn’t make it up on sites like YouTube at all. This short-circuits the ideal of information on a transnational platform that is accessible and equitable (i.e. Quail, Hildebrand). Things could be more open across borders, but there has to be social and political will, and this, today, is often linked to neoliberal market economies of the kind King describes in his poetics of marketability. To create a celebrity, there has to be a whole industry in place. To make a Canadian into such a star requires an extra layer in the celebrity-industrial complex, one that “ selects” particular Canadians to enter into the global celebrity market (and the same might be said for all non-American celebrities) whose doors are in the United States.

<40> I would suggest that part of what stops some people at the border has to do with being too Canadian. Sometimes this distinctiveness can work to our advantage. Some have argued that it is precisely being/offering slightly different but still familiar narratives and identities that makes Canadian media, for example, desirable to American—and thus transnational—audiences (Thompson-Spears). But Degrassi was famous for its Degrassi-ness; Anne was famous for Anne and for the PEI landscape. These texts, not the actors associated with them, are celebritized.  Some Canadian celebrities, beloved for being “average” people with great talent, may simply not shine brightly enough among the throngs of aspirants who wash onto American shores every year (Megan Follows, again, might be an example). The very qualities that make someone famous in Canada may work against their becoming a transnational celebrity. After all, when I watch Canadian TV and film I often enter with different expectations than I do when I encounter Hollywood.

<41> For some Canadian celebrities, their Canadianness may be too explicit, hindering their ability to pass. This may be true for African and Caribbean Canadians, whose identities may stand out as very distinct from those of African Americans. It may be that these identities do not travel easily between Canada and the U.S., because assimilation into a dominant narrative is not possible (or is very difficult). We might say, more simply, that racialized identities do not seem to travel well across this particular border crossing, and we might consider how this is implicated in the transnational constitution and mobility of celebrity. We might also ask about national/Canadian understandings of the citizen celebrity and the role Canadian celebrities play in the transnational celebrity economy as described by Clarke (above), which requires interrogating, despite our discomfort, who is actually able to claim and can lay claim to Canadian citizenship. And there is the regional question as well. Regional celebrities are not quite local and not quite national. Different regions produce different kinds of celebrities with different abilities to assimilate into trans/national celebrity.

Conclusions and Future Pursuits

<42> In this exploratory essay I’ve tried to begin (or help to ignite) a discussion about the role of Canadianness in the production of celebrity or, to put it differently, to ask what role, if any, Canadianness plays in the production of Canadian celebrities and Canadian celebrities. There are many questions still to be asked. If Canadians are different from Americans than we might want to think more about what it means that so many Canadians pass so easily as American celebrities. Geoff Pevere argues that Canadians have played a major role in the formation of certain forms of American comedic cultures; we might think, historically as well as contemporarily, of Canadian celebrities as playing such a role in the American and transnational landscape as well. If we do, we might further theorize such a role and its connection to the very particular sociocultural, historical, and political particularities of Canada, even in an increasingly transnational mediated public sphere. This would include interrogating the way that specific patterns of celebrity identity (such as racialization and class) labour in relation to global understandings of Canada as brand (Potter).

<43> I am not sure whether it is possible to be understood within the discourse of celebrity if you are famous in multiple, transnational spaces but NOT in the U.S. If not, we clearly require a new type or new level of discourse to understand this block or barricade. Long before mainstream America discovered the telenovela, South American soaps were popular across a complex web of international spaces. Speaking recently about his new project, “Black in Latin America,” Henry Louis Gates said: “Between 1502 and 1866, 11.2 million Africans arrived in the New World. And of that 11.2 million, only 450 thousand came to the United States. So, in other words, the real African-American experience unfolded south of our borders. And most of us don’t know anything about that. It’s an extension of what scholars call ‘American Exceptionalism.’ We think that everything revolves around the continental United States, including when we think about the slave experience and about race and racism” (in Williams). As far away from my query as this subject matter is, Gates’ work raises some interesting questions about how American frames sometimes eclipse, or perhaps enfold, other narratives and ways of knowing. I do not mean this in a way that recapitulates a neo-Imperialistic narrative. Maybe a better, or more productive way, is to consider that this dominance has made it easier at times for those operating outside of American traditions to frame themselves within those idioms, rather than come up with their own. When people want to become celebrities, they also want to become American.

<44> In the preceding pages I have tried to argue that Canadian celebrities engage in a kind of assimilatory practice through which they are able to engage in border crossing behaviors, becoming almost, but not quite, American. Those who are famous in Canada have qualities that resist this type of assimilatory practice, which, in effect, stop them at the border. The ways in which Canadianness is enfolded and unfolded in the production and understanding/reading of celebrity, offer meaningful windows into pressing questions about persona, citizenship, and identity in a transnational, neoliberal era.


[1] And while there is no room to take it up here, the question of how the local relates to the national, in the same way that I am questioning the relationship of the national to the transnational within the formation of celebrity, is clearly an important one.

[2] As raised earlier in this essay, it is worth theorizing why Canadian First Nations actors often stand in for American Indians in popular American texts. I would posit, like Clarke, that Canada, hyper-associated as it is with landscape, is haunted by its First Nations in a more literal way than is the U.S. and, further, in comparing the treatment of First Peoples, Canada (can) claim(s) a kind of superiority to the U.S.—in much the same way that Canada imagines itself as less racist than the U.S. against a variety of racialized Others.

[3] We might note that the album contained the theme song from the film Titanic, directed by Canadian James Cameron, another celebrity who isn’t desirable to claim—especially after his “ I’m King of the world” escapade at the Oscars.

[4] As opposed to Second City/SCTV in Toronto, which in the 1970s produced stars like Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, and Martin Short, and in the 1980s Rick Moranis and Mike Myers. SNL a show created by Canadian Lorne Michaels, led to the fame of Canadian comics Phil Hartman and Paul Shaffer.

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